It would be hard to find a passage of Scripture which presents so compactly God’s plan for God’s people and the world. The wonderful thing is that the words mean as much to us as they did to the Palestinian Jews of Jesus day and as they did to the Jews of Isaiah’s day. These are words from a God whose commitment is both contemporary in every age yet ageless throughout time. Walter Brueggemann describes this passage as something Christians hold in conjunction with the story of Moses freeing his people and he writes calling it “…the odd story of Jesus. As the story goes, Jesus came to those paralyzed by the demands of the over finicky requirements of some forms of Judaism that had been diverted from the claims of God and neighbor, and by the comprehensive ideology of the Roman government that wanted to eliminate the God of the Jews from its horizon.” Brueggemann then adds “As the story goes, Jesus came among those frozen in narratives of anxiety and alienation, of slavery and fear; then authorized a departure into the new world of God’s provenance….and then he acted it out…”
Our Advent journey is a reminder that we long for awareness and assurance that God is with us. It is pretty easy to look around us, personally and as a community, and to know that there are lots of reasons for us to give up, especially in this year of Covid. We are isolated, alone and often afraid. The good news is, of course, that vaccines are now available. The challenging news is that some people may wait as long as the summer to receive the vaccine. Even when we have been vaccinated we may still have to wear a mask and observe certain health protocols throughout 2021. Nevertheless there is tangible healing, repair, and hope and that is what the Scripture passage for today addresses as well. The big question, of course, is how might our community be changed after the pandemic recedes? Few at the leadership level are speaking of going back to the former time—as in all the way back to last December! The pandemic has shown us the strength of our county but also brought to the forefront for everyone to see all of those areas where people and communities are being left out of our good society. The pandemic has shown us that we are able to find the support we need from one another to get to the point where not only is this a good life but a life worth celebrating! Some have shown tremendous strength and courage that the rest of us might enjoy this life as much as possible. What then if it was even a life for which we felt grateful? What if we truly saw this as our day to preach good news to the poor and vulnerable and to take our words and create actions? That is the promise of Advent.
The gift that we bring to our society is the conviction that God’s word is what Prof. Casey Sigmon refers to as “…the architect. God is the chief builder of just ways of being. This designing word endures through Isaiah as generations at various levels of attention to the plan pass away. Throughout Isaiah, God’s designing word is active through prophets and seeking response through prophets and people. The design requires builder, engineers, laborers, and materials to manifest itself. Architects cannot complete their vision on their own.”
Our mission as a Church then is to be part of God’s mission, a mission “to bind the wounds and unbind the people”. Few indeed are the people that can get through life without some wounds. Wounds partially shape and influence who we are and what we become for the rest of our lives. Wounds can make us stronger. Wounds may also leave us more vulnerable and susceptible to abuse. For many people the wounds of childhood either get played out negatively in adulthood or go largely unaddressed and are allowed to fester just beneath the skin until something, or more probably someone, unbinds the person carrying the burden so that their life might then go free. Those too have come to the fore during this pandemic. We now know much more personally and as a community the need for support in mental health areas of our lives as being as important as physical health. So we now realize that tangible healing, repair and hope is for our emotional and mental wellbeing as well.
It is not just people who carry the unbound wounds. As a society we are affected everyday by our decisions to purposely limit the fullness of life which a country such as ours might offer. Our inability to provide clean drinking water to indigenous communities; our failure to provide affordable housing; our woefully inadequate pre-school child care; and our failure to address the needs of the gig and service workers that make our society work at all. By ignoring the wounds of poverty we not only perpetuate poverty but in the process we spend far more time and money addressing that unbound wound than it would cost to unbind the people. Covid outbreaks and Covid expenses may be traced by area code as the area codes tend to reflect who lives in which community. The poor and those who live in crowded, inadequate housing are those we pass by on our way to the Manger. In this case the need for physical tangible healing, repair and hope is augmented by the equally critical need for tangible mental health healing, repair and hope as well.
What we find in today’s reading is described by Brueggemann as being rooted in the “very person of Jesus, (which) brings all of life—public and personal, human and non-human—into a regime of wholeness…He came with a mandate to do for the world what the Creator had intended from the outset. Jesus found it all there in the scroll that authorized him:…” I think you can see how critical today’s Scripture is in terms of both understanding the possibility of God with us and accepting the promise of God with us.
It would be easy to just give up. It would be easy to decide to look out for only our own self-interests, especially if we come to the conclusion that no one else will do that for us. Not only is that view self-defeating, because none of us is as capable as all of us working together, but it is also profoundly unchristian. When Jesus read the Isaiah passage and then said “Today this Scripture has come true in your hearing.” he was announcing that this is how he, and his followers, would live. It was a statement that took him way beyond the view that pessimists see the glass as half empty while optimists see the glass as half full. It is a profound move into the acceptance that God has made the world, and that everything we have is ultimately a gift from God and therefore everything that we have is also what God intends all of God’s people to have. We are not even asked to have less, although there may be instances where we are so paralyzed by something that we need to give it up, we are simply asked to care for others and to ensure that others also enjoy the fullness of life. I was struck a few years ago to learn then that if homeowners would have accepted an annual tax increase of fifty-nine dollars each then our City Council could have balanced its budget. I do not know the budget figure for next year, but I suspect if those same homeowners would accept an increase of just ninety-nine dollars a year then the City would be able to address many of the social and community needs that have become obvious due to the pandemic. When everyone does a little it makes a huge difference. When we work as a community, when we agree to think just briefly for the benefit of others it really does not take that much to do so. The incredible thing is that we could then look at what we have achieved and have a sense of ‘yes, this is how we thank God and yes, this is how we live as Jesus indicated he would live.’
It is not that difficult and certainly achievable but for that to happen Brueggemann would insist that we have to have a larger vision of the future. He writes: “The vision is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it already is in heaven….It is a vision of the world as a peaceable neighborhood in which no one is under threat, no one is at risk, no one is in danger, because all are safe, all are valued, all are honored, all are cared for.” This is why we take these weeks of reflection and preparation called Advent so that when the Manger is realized once again this year we will be ready to know that with the Babe comes the call to bind the wounds and unbind the people. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us. Thanks be to God.